Saturday, January 24, 2004

The Only Imaginable Reason to Vote Republican

Gene Healy nails it:

I've been preoccupied lately with trying to figure out why anyone who supports limited government would support George W. Bush and the G.O.P., particularly after that State of the Union speech … The other reason, I guess, is the supposed lack of viable alternatives. I think about that scene from Officer and a Gentleman … Louis Gossett Jr. is beating the piss out of Richard Gere, and Gossett screams "Why you wanna be a Marine, Mayonaisse?" And Gere, doubled over, snot and blood dripping from his nose, screams back: "CAUSE I GOT NOWHERE ELSE TA GO!! [sob] I got nowhere else ta go..."
No matter how you slice it, the principle of limited government takes a beating.


Friday, January 23, 2004

Broken Windows on the Moon

Andrew Chamberlain debunks the idea that we ought to credit NASA with the invention of Velcro, Teflon, Tang, Dust Busters, calculators, ad infinitum (thanks to Radley for the pointer). Andrew makes a number of excellent points (with great links, too), but I have to mention explicitly the one Andrew only hinted at: counting these ancillary and sometimes accidental inventions among NASA’s benefits is another variant of the old broken-window fallacy.

If Congress had not allocated all that money to NASA, then either (a) Congress would have allocated it in other ways, or (b) it would have been left in the private sector, where it would have been spent or invested. Either way, it would have stimulated other sectors of the economy. The activity that would have resulted in those other sectors is “what is not seen,” as Fredric Bastiat would have said: it is the invisible cost of the NASA budget. Those other sectors might also have produced a variety of both intentional and accidental inventions. We will never know what advances might have been made in other realms of human endeavor.

Inasmuch as NASA does pioneering research, one could argue that NASA is more likely than other programs to produce spillover benefits. But, as Andrew astutely points out, spillover benefits can result from all kinds of research, not just space exploration, so the claim of spillover benefits is hardly unique to NASA. And accidental discoveries can be made just about anywhere. In any case, the existence of spillover benefits doesn’t erase the costs. To get all those benefits, we had to sacrifice potential gains, of both the novel and mundane variety, elsewhere in the economy. It’s conceivable that NASA produced value on net, but we have to consider the hidden costs to make that calculation; and because those costs are in terms of things that never happened, we can’t ever know for sure. The next time you hear a laundry list of inventions that “would never have happened” if not for NASA, at least give a thought to all the other potential inventions that might have happened if not for NASA.


Thursday, January 22, 2004

My Miss-understanding

A Jan. 21 posting by Chris Potts on LanguageLog discusses negated sentences that mean the same thing as their non-negated counterparts, the most well-known probably being this pair:

(1) (a) I couldn’t care less. / (b) I could care less.

This reminds me of another not-to-be-taken-literally negation that I first heard from my wife. She said:

(2) I miss not seeing her.

I had to take a few seconds to figure out what she meant. “So… you used to not see her … but now you do see her … and you wish you didn’t have to?” I asked. No, it turns out I could have saved the mental energy of figuring out the compositional semantics and just jumped straight to the pragmatically sensible meaning. She meant what I would have said like this:

(3) I miss seeing her.

I did a search for miss not on the Internet and found too many examples to include here, as well as a discussion of this idiom here.

Now Chris says cases like these challenge the theory of natural-language negation, since a negated sentence really ought to mean the opposite of an un-negated one. But I wonder. Looking at the couldn’t care less example, it may just be that speakers who use (1b) have a single definition for the whole phrase could care less—in other words, could_care_less = don’t care. And they could even still have the ordinary, compositional meaning for could care less, and would just have to use it with the appropriate intonation to distinguish it from the idiomatic could_care_less. As in, "I COULD care less about your well-being, like so many other parents seem to do with their kids -- but I DON'T care less!"

Coming back to the miss not seeing cases, we could just say that for people who use this construction, miss simply means “regret” (an idea mentioned in the above website). And what if there are speakers who can say either (2) or (3) equally well? OK, so for them, there are two homonyms, each pronounced as “miss,” one taking a gerund phrase and meaning “dislike not being able to do something that one previously could do,” and the other taking a negated gerund phrase and meaning “regret.”

The real test of this hypothesis would be finding out if there are speakers who can do something like this:

(4) I miss seeing you and not doing all the things we used to do.

Can this mean “I miss seeing you and I regret that we don't do all the things we used to do”? If you could say this or hear it with the above meaning, I’d like to hear from you!



When my son got interested in dinosaurs, I began to learn about all the dinosaurs that had been discovered since I read about them as a kid. One of them is a meat-eater from South America, with a snub-nosed face and two short horns above its eyes. These features reminded the dinosaur’s discoverer of a bull, so he named it Carnotaurus (yes, that’s –taurus, not –saurus), which most of the dinosaur books I’ve seen translate as “meat-eating bull.” Now that’s just not right. The Carno- part means “meat,” and the taurus part means “bull,” but where’s the “eat” part? Carnotaurus doesn’t mean “meat-eating bull”; it means “meatbull”!

But wait, you say. “Meatbull” doesn’t make any sense. That’s right. “Meat-EATING bull” makes much more sense, but dammit, just because “meatbull” doesn’t make any sense doesn’t mean you can just go adding whatever meaning you think should go in there! For example, think about the Jurassic plant-eater Brachiosaurus, whose name means “arm-lizard.” Arm-lizard? What’s an arm-lizard? Well, if Carnotaurus means “meat-EATING bull,” then maybe Brachiosaurus means “arm-BREAKING lizard.” After all, “arm-BREAKING lizard” makes a lot of sense if you imagine a big old Brachiosaurus stomping down on an unfortunate allosaur. For that matter, who says we have to insert a meaning that makes sense? Brachiosaurus could just as easily mean “arm-EATING lizard,” or “arm-DRINKING lizard,” or “arm-PAINTING lizard.” Actually, “arm-lizard” does make sense once you find out that the people who named it were referring to the fact that its front legs (i.e. arms) were longer than its rear legs, which is unusual for a dinosaur. But in that case, why hasn’t Brachiosaurus been translated as “arms-LONGER-THAN-LEGS lizard” for all these years?

So paleontologists have a couple of options. They can say that Carnotaurus means “meat-bull,” and that a meatbull is a bull that eats meat. Or they can name the dinosaur something like Carnivorotaurus, and say that that means “meat-eating bull.” But they can’t name it Carnotaurus and say that its name means “meat-eating bull.” Alas, as R. Crumb, might put it, Meatbull doesn’t work that way!


Sex Selection

This article by Kathleen Parker, in which she argues against the use of genetic sex selection, is a miracle of poor reasoning. It’s the kind of article that’s almost anti-persuasive: if these are the best arguments they can muster against sex selection, then it must be okay. I can’t resist giving it a brisk fisking.

Just because we can, should we? And who should decide? Is this yet another place government doesn't belong? If not a matter for government oversight, then who should decide what we do with human life in all its permutations - pre-born, test-tubed, sperm-selected and ova-donated.

Priests, rabbis and imams? A jury of one's peers? Bioethicists?
Ooh, um, I don’t know… parents, maybe? Odd how that option didn’t even make the list.
Family planning no longer means counting moon phases.
This is news? Family planning hasn’t meant counting moon phases since the invention of the pill.
Increasingly, it's a matter of mapping gender and genes. Already some specialty sperm and egg banks offer "Ivy League" donors; hundreds of couples have signed up for sex-selection trials.
In this context, “already” means “for over 30 years, since sperm banks first appeared.” Sperm banks have always kept track of the characteristics of their donors, so that sperm shoppers could choose the sort of father they wanted. So far, it hasn’t been a problem.
What's the big deal about identifying sex, proponents ask? If a family has three boys and wants a girl, why shouldn't they have the option to choose? Questions far outnumber answers thus far, which may be an answer in itself.
That’s right, more questions constitutes an answer. From now on, if you want to ban something, you don’t actually have to demonstrate a harm – you just have to ask a bunch of questions.
Some pragmatists worry that sex selection could become a new form of sex discrimination. Or that we might upset the balance of nature by fooling with the ratio of boys to girls, as occurred in China when families limited to one child aborted females.
This is, in my mind, the only serious objection to sex selection. But the fact that it happened in China – which (a) has a long cultural history of strongly preferring boys to girls, (b) still has many regions dominated by agriculture, which favors having children who can work the fields, and (c) has a state policy limiting parents to a single child each – doesn’t mean that it will happen here. And even if it does, the problem might be self-correcting; see my previous post on this subject.
Sex selection also adds a prickly new dimension to the abortion issue. If you order a girl and mistakenly get a boy, do you abort the "wrong sex"? Of course, you certainly may, and some have. Wrong sex, wrong time, wrong mood. Getting born these days is a tricky proposition.
The reasoning here is exactly backward. People who care that much about getting a baby of the right sex can abort wrong-sexed fetuses under the status quo, with no help from sex selection technology. I doubt such abortions are common, but more importantly, the availability of sex selection will reduce their frequency, not increase it. Parents who really, really want a boy can make 99.99% sure they get one in the first place, rather than aborting two or three girls first.
Here's at least one question I haven't heard asked: When did it become accepted wisdom that people should always get exactly what they want? Since when are perfect outcomes the standard by which we measure quality of life?
Strange that she hasn’t heard anyone ask that question, since statists ask it on a regular basis, as though it were actually an argument or something. It’s not. We all know it’s impossible for everyone to get exactly what they want. But when we can improve some people’s happiness without substantially burdening others’, only pointless self-denial would prevent us from doing so. If improving people’s ability to come closer to getting what they want is a bad thing, then we need to rethink a lot of other technological advances – like condoms, for instance, which have been around at least since the time of Caesar.
In every case, I suspect, a degree of narcissism creeps into the romantic equation that results in our little darlings. Father wants a son just like Dad; Mother wants a daughter just like Mom.
If true, this claim mitigates the alleged sex-ratio problem. At least in cases where both Mom and Dad are involved in the decision, the two sources of narcissism cancel each other out (to some degree, at least).
Besides which, life without surprises – and the kind of spontaneity that sometimes results in an unplanned pregnancy – would be intolerably boring.
So should we ban birth control to encourage more of those fun “surprise” pregnancies? Look, if you want a surprise, you can still have one – it’s not like trying to tickle yourself! If you want your child’s sex to be a surprise, don’t use sex selection! For decades now, parents have had the ability to find out their child’s sex before birth; many have chosen to do so, but others have not. (Neal and his wife chose a clever halfway house, because he wanted to know but she didn’t. Neal found out the baby’s sex and then agreed to switch pronouns from week to week – “he” this week, “she” next week – so his wife wouldn’t be tipped off. If he ever slipped, the error could be written off to forgetting what week it was.)

Perhaps there are some risks to sex selection, but I haven’t heard a truly persuasive one yet. Articles like this one just reinforce my suspicion that opposition to sex selection stems from squeamishness and little else.


Wednesday, January 21, 2004


That’s the feeling this article inspires in me. An Ohio woman just won $162 million (well, $67 million actually, because she took the lump-sum payment) in the lottery. The local government officials were almost as excited as she was – after all, they figured they had just gotten a windfall of unexpected tax revenues! But it was not to be, because the city had neglected to include lottery winnings in the definition of income.

"It's not a good day for the city," Mayor Georgine Welo said Monday. "We were all excited until we went to go for the money and learned that we are not entitled to it. We are very saddened by the news."
Yeah, I’ll bet. It’s enough to make you weep – from laughing so hard. Hey, how about this: the city should take $2 of tax revenue and buy a lottery ticket for itself next week.


Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Gettysburg Address on PowerPoint

Go view it now. I mean it!


Alternative Programming

As Julian notes, the State of the Union Address is like the Super Bowl for political geeks. But as a political geek myself, I still don’t get it. The SotU is invariably a lethal mix of boring, stupid, mawkish, and frustrating. The endless ovations only add to the torture. And if you really feel like you’re missing something, you can skim the full transcript (minus ovations) in the morning paper. Here’s a hint: if the only good reason to watch something is the drinking game, then find something else to watch. There are plenty of better options, and they, too, often have drinking games. Hey, I’m not saying MTV’s Taildaters/Punk’d line-up is sophisticated television, but consider the alternative. As for me, I think I’ll be watching Firefly on DVD.


Braves versus Thinskins

Christopher Potz’s recent post on offensive team names reminds of something I’ve been meaning to say on the subject. Activist groups pushing for the elimination of team names like Redskins, Indians, and Braves have made a strategic error that likely damages their case in the eyes of the public: they refuse to distinguish between derogatory and non-derogatory references to American Indians. “Redskins” is clearly offensive to anyone who gives it much thought; but “Indians” is pretty neutral, and “Braves” is arguably complimentary. As long as activist groups insist on the elimination of all these names, the public is likely to ignore them. Given an all-or-nothing choice, they prefer all to nothing. The mere fact that a team name makes reference to an ethnic group, or to that group’s warrior class, does not indicate racism; if it did, then activists would be equally upset over the Patriots, Minutemen, and Vikings. If the activists hope to make a difference, they need to adopt a more moderate stance favoring the elimination of only the truly offensive names.

(PETA has made a similar error in its advocacy of animal rights. Many Americans might favor marginal changes that improve the condition of food animals on factory farms and research animals in labs. But they are not willing to go vegetarian, forgo the health and safety gains from research, and rename the Green Bay Packers because its name is a reference to the meat-packing industry.)


Monday, January 19, 2004

The Nature Con...servancy

These two articles spell bad news for free-market environmentalists. For many years, I had considered the Nature Conservancy a fine example of how environmental goals could be sought by private means rather than government coercion. Unfortunately, it turns out the Conservancy is most likely guilty of various forms of malfeasance and unethical behavior. It also turns out, according to this report, that the Conservancy wasn’t that market-friendly, either: it received much government funding, and it frequently sold properties to the government despite the express wishes of those who sold or donated them to the Conservancy in the first place.

Of course, it’s good news that a seemingly corrupt and (as it turns out) anti-market organization will likely be brought to justice. But it’s bad news that what appeared to be a noble organization is not so noble after all.

Moreover, some of the organization’s laudable practices may be tarred with the same brush as its unsavory ones. For instance, both articles imply that it’s somehow unethical for the Conservancy to have engaged in “conservation buyer” sales and to have allowed for some development and resource extraction on its preserves.

[Earlier Washington Post] stories also reported that the Conservancy had repeatedly bought land, added some development restrictions, then resold the properties at reduced prices to its trustees and other supporters. The buyers made cash gifts to the Conservancy roughly equal to the difference in price, thereby qualifying for substantial tax deductions. [excerpt from first linked article above]

[The Nature Conservancy has now] [s]uspended all new logging and other "resource extraction activities" on its nature preserves. The Post articles detailed how in Texas City, Tex., the organization had drilled for oil and natural gas under the last native breeding ground of a highly endangered species of grouse known as the Attwater's prairie chicken. The suspension will not stop natural gas production on the Texas preserve, a spokesman said. [excerpt from second linked article above]
Although the sale of properties to the organization’s own trustees undoubtedly smells corrupt, there is nothing inherently wrong with the general approach described here The notion that land must remain pristine in order to achieve environmental goals is a myth perpetuated by other environmental groups. In reality, it’s possible to use land for various purposes with only negligible harm to the environment, as long as suitable development restrictions are in place. Even better, the proceeds from resource extractions can generate funds which can be used to preserve yet more sensitive properties from development. This strategy, which is both economically sensible and environmentally sound, may suffer unjustly as a result of the Nature Conservancy’s unethical actions. (Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the pointer.)


Stuck in a Syntactic Puzzle You Can't Get Out Of

That's the clever post title I thought Neal should've used for his post below, and now I have a chance to use it, because Dad emailed me the following message that he was unable to post in the comments box:

Neal calls this kind of situation an "attachment ambiguity." No doubt that is the correct linguistics term, but I call it bad diction, good diction being defined as a skillful choice of words accurately used to express clearly the speaker's ideas.

Our society generally forgives a modicum of bad diction or bad grammar on the part of singers and songwriters, because it is often necessary to make the timing and tempo (or the rhyming) of the lyrics fit with the melody ("poetic license"). This is not surprising, since frequently (if not the majority of the time) the music is written before the lyrics are. In fact, it is not uncommon that different people write the music and the lyrics. My impression is that this is especially true with musicals.

Were it not for the absurdity of the "call her up a thousand times" scenario, that would be exactly what I would think was meant, just as Ellen did, because of the sentence structure. Consider the following:

"I resolve to call her up a thousand times a day" has the same structure as, "I resolve to call her every week." Now, having removed the outlandish aspect (a thousand calls per day) from the problem, it is clear that what the speaker means to say is that he intends to call her every week (whether he actually gets around to it is another matter).

If, instead, the speaker said, "Every week I resolve to call her," it is equally clear that every week he resolves all over again to call her (but apparently he can't ever work up the nerve to actually do so).

While on the subject of misleading song lyrics, Neal, what is the proper linguistics term for the kind of intentional misdirection embodied in the song line that goes, "I want to kiss her, but .... pause .... she won't let me," meaning that he wants to kiss her (except she won't let him), although what the singer wants the listener to hear is that he (the singer) wants to kiss her butt.

Also, what does BTW mean? And did you mean to say Police both times or Sting both times?
Here are my answers, even though the questions were for Neal. With regard to the intentional misdirection ("I want to kiss her, but..."), I think the technical linguistic term is "pun." "BTW" is Internet shorthand for "by the way." And Sting was the lead singer of the Police, so I think Neal deliberately used both names.


Sunday, January 18, 2004

Foundering on a syntactic puzzle

Thanks, Glen, for the introduction. And now, I'll get right to some linguistic stuff.

In a recent post on LanguageLog, Geoff Pullum spoke of “founder[ing] on [a] semantic puzzle”. I’ve known this feeling when it comes to syntax, and particularly in song lyrics. I’ve always had a tendency (which I’ve gradually learned is not a normal one) to take things literally, and end up chuckling over lines like this one:

(1) Your prison is walking through this world all alone. (“Desperado,” by the Eagles)

But one song lyric in particular had me foundering on a syntactic puzzle. Back in high school, I’d hear this line from the Police on the radio:

(2) I resolve to call her up a thousand times a day… (“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”)

And I’d wonder: Which is it? Does he make a resolution a thousand times a day? Or does he make one resolution, namely, that he will call her up a thousand times a day? Well, gosh, she’d get pretty annoyed if he called a thousand times a day, so it’s probably the resolving that he does a thousand times a day. Yeah, that’s probably it. But even after making my determination, the next time I’d hear the song, I’d go through the train of thought all over again. It was weeks before I was able to hear how the rest of the verse went, because about 5 seconds would always have elapsed before I turned my attention back to the song. (It goes, “ask her if she’ll marry me,” something something something). Much later I learned that there was a name for this kind of situation: an attachment ambiguity. Does “a thousand times a day” attach to the lower verb phrase “call her up”, or to the larger verb phrase “resolve to call her up”?

BTW, for those who think the “call her up a thousand times” scenario is so outlandish that no one could possibly think that was what Sting meant, that was exactly what my sister thought he meant until I opened her eyes to the more likely meaning!


Changing of the Guard

I have two announcements. First, I am pleased to announce that my brother Neal Whitman will be guest-blogging on Agoraphilia for the next couple of weeks. Neal earned his doctorate in linguistics from Ohio State University in 2002, and he has articles published or forthcoming in The Journal of Linguistics and Language. Rather than offering a description of his political ideology, as seems traditional on mostly political blogs like this one, I will instead state his linguistic ideology: he is a semanticist with syntactic leanings. (That's supposed to be a little joke. If it's not funny, blame me, not Neal.) I look forward to his posts on language and whatever else he feels like venting about.

Second, Agoraphilia bids fond farewell to gadfly Jim Dow. He's not dead or anything; he's just decided blogging's not really his bag. He'll no longer be a regular co-blogger, but hopefully he will guest blog at some point in the future.